Thursday, November 29, 2012

Division of labor

In case you are wondering, these pictures, taken on our flight from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, capture the division of labor on this trip rather well. ;)


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Chiang Mai: Festivals and celebrations

The second half of our week in Chiang Mai was jam packed with activities - celebrations, to be exact. Thanksgiving, hot air balloons, and Yi Ping, to be exact.

Through my research for this trip, I came across a number of amazing blogs of traveling families. And when I say traveling families, I am talking about families who are on the road for a year or more. Some are just taking a year off to see the world, some don't know if they'll ever go back. And they are all doing it with kids.

Because many people would already be in Chiang Mai for Thanksgiving, Peace's organized a Thanksgiving lunch at a restaurant that was indeed serving a true turkey dinner! About six families met up, including ones I had recruited from our Chiang Mai guest house, to celebrate the day. Not all were American, so for some it was their first thanksgiving ever. And for many who have been on the road for a while, it was their first Thanksgiving in years.Anyways, I got in contact with some of these families and eventually joined a fabulous Facebook group to use to get information and share resources. Through this group, I found out that many other families were traveling to Chiang Mai for the Yi Ping festival on November 24. What luck! We were going to meet up with other families on the road!

We had a great time meeting these other families, and learning about life on the road, how they earn a living, homeschooling, unschooling, and all sorts of adventures. Could that be us someday? ;)

Somehow we let a few of the families talk us into showing up at 6am for a balloon launch as art of the Thailand International Hotair Balloon Festival. We were at the festival before Mr. Sunshine even took a morning yawn thanks to our incredibly generous guest house owner who drove us there. It was really neat to watch them prepare fill, and launch the balloons. Simon was particularly excited by the flames shooting out the baskets - and you could really feel that heat a ways back. Finally the balloons were all launched and floating off to who know where, and we headed back to our guest house to enjoy breakfast and no more pans for the day.

The next day, Saturday, was what we were really looking forward to - Yi Ping, a traditinal Lanna festival paying resect to Buddha taking place in the Sansai district of Chiang Mai province. We had somehow learned of this yearly celebration and extended our Chiang Mai visit just for it. And as I said, many other traveling families were doing the same.

Simon in his festival attire!
We were very happy when our guest house arranged transportation for a group from our place to attend. We didn't know what to expect so we were glad that our minivan would be there waiting to pick us up, and the owner's daughter even attended with us, as she had never been before.

We obviously weren't the only tourists who had heard of this magical festival. The street up to the temple where the release would take place was lined with food vendors selling noodles, sausages, and drinks to not only Thai, but many, many tourists as well. We sampled various dishes along the way, and eventually carved out a small space for our group of 10 in the large field where we everyone would simultaneously release their lanterns.

At the front of the field was a stage set up where Buddhist monks led chanting and meditation. It was beautiful, but many of us were eagerly anticipating the release of the lanterns. Eventually, with instructions in both Thai and English, we were told to light the large candles mounted on sticks throughout the field. The field wasnnow aglow with soft candlelight. We were then instructed to light a lantern and wait for the signal so that all lanterns (thousands off them) would be released together.

We carefully lit our lantern, making sure to pull the sides away from the plane. At 90 cm in diameter, they require several sets of hands to maneuver. Slowly, the lantern filled with hot air, and we could feel a gentle skyward tug. (Simon was on my back at this point, as I didn't want to worry about all the fire around us.)

The moment arrived, and thousands of lanterns were released into the night sky. It was a magical moment. The kind that brings you to tears, though you can't quite explain why.
Check out the sky behind me!
(We have video that we can't upload and are hoping to get better pics from friends with better cameras, but we included a few of ours here. Check out this youtube video of the event. More to come!)
Simon made some great photo contributions as well. He seems to love photography... Here are a few samples of his work.

It was a very memorable night with great new friends. We know it will be a highlight of not only our time in Thailand, but of the whole trip as well.


Chiang Mai: Our Secret Garden

Yesterday we arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos. The flight in was stunning: jagged peaks shrouded in mist, covered with, lush, green vegetation. I need to tell you about Chiang Mai before Laos wins me over.

Chang Mai did not quite hold the laid back charm that we had hoped for. It's a small city, full of cars and trucks and exhaust. Significantly less than Bangkok, but an unpleasant presence nonetheless. We were staying in the old part of the city for the first few nights, so good food and massages were never hard to find. We found a highly recommended masseuse around the corner from our guest house and could not have been happier with our $7, 1.5 hour massage. Heavenly!

Simon and Martin were still a bit out of sorts with their various ailments, so we really took it easy, besides the zoo, we also checked out the famous Wat Doi Suthep, which was beautiful. Simon was very excited to see Buddha again, and I was less than thrilled with yet another poorly timed dirty diaper. We need to get that belly under control, boy!

On Wednesday everything changed. Per the recommendation of a fellow traveling family, we had booked the next 5 nights at a small family run guest house just outside of the city, The Secret Garden. Yet again, we were looking forward to getting out of the city and enjoying some fresh air. We were hopeful that this time we got it right.

We were not disappointed. Located in the small handicraft village of Bosang, it is about 20 minutes from central Chiang Mai. It is green, lush, secluded, and tranquil. The German-Thai family that runs the place could not be more accommodating, working hard to make your stay extremely comfortable.

One of the best features is the dinner option. They have a set buffet menu for every night of the week, and for a bargain price you can sample a variety of local Thai dishes. Definitely the best Thai food we had during our 2 weeks in Thailand.

Breakfast (included) and dinner were served in the covered Sala area, where you could watch the family cooking up a delicious feast. This communal area was a great place to connect with other travelers, share stories, and make friends. We really enjoyed meeting Lily and Steve from California, on their delayed honeymoon. We found out that we both had planned our trips to Chiang Mai in part around the northern Thai festival Yi Ping. We managed to organize a whole group from our hotel to go to this breathtaking lantern festival. (Separate post here.)

It is exactly the kind of place that I want to stay at over and over on every leg of our trip. Probably the best place I have ever stayed anywhere. We were dragging our feet as we left, thinking how nice it would be with just one more night, one more meal. Martin would have been happy staying there for the next 3 months. But we made it it the airport and made it to Laos. We are moving on.

Going to Chiang Mai? Stay here!


Monday, November 26, 2012

I think I'm alone now

I am really trying to catch up with our Chiang Mai blog posts, but felt an urge to write a quick post about what is gong on right now. I am alone. In Luang Prabang. Sitting on a small terrace overlooking the Mekong. This is significant because the only other time I have been alone on this trip is when I went for a massage, with Simon watching The Lion King (he thinks he's Simba) and Martin reading.

The combination of Martin's back pain and Simon's tummy problems has meant a lot of work for this mama. Martin hasn't been able to help very much, so I have been on 24/7. That's all the carrying, pushing and those nasty diapers. So I need a break. And I am enjoying it.

I have spent the last hour walking around Luang Prabang without anyone asking me to carry them, or for ice cream. In fact, no one has asked anything of me. Glorious! The truth is, I have taken 2 backpacking trips in my life, Peru for one month and Mexico for 2 months, and these were both solo adventures. I spent my time as I pleased, planning only for me and the things that I wanted to do. My mind was not cluttered with worrying about others needs and whether they were hungry or tired or had sunscreen on.

This trip is nothing like those old days, and it takes some time to adjust. I read through the guide books, making mental notes of things I want to do and see. But then I remember that it's not just me, and that we have a little guy in tow that can't keep up with it all. And we have to plan accordingly. This trip has a different pace and a different purpose. We are seeing and experiencing the world together, as a family. I can hold off on trekking and rafting until next time.

I also remind myself that in traveling with a toddler we, too, are experiencing our travels differently. We are slowing down, doing things that might not have been on our radar if it was only Martin and I. (Such as the Chaing Mai Zoo, for example.) We also experience Simon's reaction to all of these new experiences, as well as our own. Feeding the hippos and the elephants at the zoo with Simon is an amazing memory for me.

I am very happy to be traveling with my family, and grateful for moments of solitude when I can reflect on and savor those moments.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Progress Report: Life on the Road with a 2 year old

So far I have been describing mostly what we have done, but I thought some of you might be interested in what life is actually like on the road. I decided that it would be fun to post periodic progress reports on life on the road. More of the day to day stuff. So here's the first one!

Simon passed out in the songtow
We never had any illusions that traveling with a 2 year old would be easy. We have traveled a fair amount with Simon, but a 4 month backpacking trip is unlike anything we have ever done, with or without a 2 year old. Usually we only minorly disrupt his routines and naps, so things go pretty smoothly. This trip is a little bit different...
Routines went out the door the day we left. Naps have been sporadic and bed times range from 8pm to midnight. This has been a really big challenge. It's not always feasible to come back in the middle of the day for a nap, it can make it hard to get out and do other things. This was especially true in Dubai and Bangkok where I think the only naps he got were in strollers or on car rides. I remember he fell asleep for the whole car ride out to our desert safari, a huge relief or it could have been a very ugly evening.

In Chiang Mai things have improved. Because he was sick, we slowed our pace significantly and made sleep a big priority. We are out of the big cities, so things aren't so far away and it's easier to do things for a half day. These last few days we have made naps a priority, and done only one thing each day, either morning or afternoon so that he gets his sleep (and recovers). It seems to be going much better.

Martin and I are also learning to adjust and manage our expectations. We don't have fun when Simon's not happy, so we have to plan around him. That said, we don't want to be cooped up in hotel rooms every afternoon while Simon sleeps, we want to unwind and enjoy some time without him. This has worked out splendidly here in Chiang Mai, as the guest house we are staying at has a great pool and common area to lounge around in. As a result Martin and I have enjoyed a few afternoons reading by the pool, and evenings drinking beer with new friends.

Our tip to fellow family travelers is to plan rest days. We need them as much as Simon. A big bonus for parents is to make sure that you can enjoy the down time a bit on your own terms as well. If you want to curl up and nap, great! But find a place where everyone is cozy, or take turns with your spouse to get out and enjoy wherever you are without a kid in tow.

Lesson learned: Sleep, sleep, sleep!


Monday, November 19, 2012

The Chiang Mai Zoo

We finally felt that we owed it to Simon to do something just for him. He still has an upset tummy, but we thought a morning at the Chiang Mai Zoo was just what he needed. And we were right.

The zoo is located on the outskirts of Chiang Mai at the base of a small mountain, and the zoo itself is sprawled up the hillside. They have a bus and monorail system to help you get around, which was a lifesaver given the heat and the tenuous health status of my fellow travelers.

Our first great find was the hippos. There were 3 enormous hippos lounging in the shade. Their enclosure was such that we could almost touch them, a little scary given that they are one of the deadliest animals in the world. Our first bit of excitement came when one of them took a poop. It reminded me of that book, Everyone Poops, where they have a picture of a hippo swatting its own poo with its tail. It was pretty disgusting, and I am just glad that he wasn't much closer or it could have been a disaster! If I've really got you curious, check this out.

At the other end of an enclosure we discovered a group high school students feeding the hippos! Of course we ran over to join. They had a huge bucket of potatoes, which I believe they purchased there. They immediately handed Simon a handful of potatoes and we started lobbing them into their waiting mouths. They waited with their enormous jaws propped wide open, reveling their huge canine teeth and sharp incisors. Yikes! It was totally fascinating and no doubt my best zoo experience ever. I can't imagine such a setup would ever fly in the US, as there was very little separating us and we could anyone could easily reach over the enclosure and be alarmingly close to those deadly guys.

We moved on and found a mama and a baby elephant lounging around looking for some grub. Simon was immediately drawn to the elephants, which was a little surprising as he is often scared of animals up close. There was another man there feeding the elephants with a basket of cucumbers and sugar cane (available for purchase). He gave the rest of the basket to Simon to feed the elephants- he loved it! We bought two more basket and this could have gone on forever - but there were panda bears to see.

There are only about 30 panda bears in captivity outside of China, so no wonder neither Martin nor I could member ever seeing one. When we entered the panda house, the first panda we came across was sleeping. I wasn't really that excited to see a sleeping panda. The next hall had two more pandas, both sleeping. But wait! Chuang Chuang just woke up! He started walking around, jumped on his swing, swatted at his tethered ball, and ambled around his enclosure. Watching this huge animal move around was amazing. He looked so gentle and kind, I just wanted to sit on his lap! That is not permitted, however, so we moved on to see lions and tigers.

We saw a few more exhibits, including lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, koala bears, and orungatans. There was lots more to see, but Simon was fading quickly and Martin's back was still quite sore. We headed back to town, sat down at a local eatery serving hainese chicken, and went back to our place for some much needed rest.


Overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai: A bumpy ride

We were ready to get out of Bangkok and very much looking forward to moving on to Chiang Mai. I was also very excited for the train. It just seemed like a great part of any traveling adventure: the gentle humming of the terrain gliding along the tracks, everyone sleeping in their little cabins. It could have been that good, it was almost that good, but, in the end, it just wasn't .

Simon woke up that morning with diarrhea. I was hoping that it was related to an enema we and given him the night before as he hadn't pooped in 3 days. It continued throughout the day, so we loaded up on diapers and wipes before the long (approximately 14 hour) train ride.

We got to the train station, ate dinner (except Simon who hadn't eaten all day), and found our seats on the train. We had seats in the second class sleeper train. The seats convert into beds and the top bunks fold down. The bottom bunks are more spacious, so I had booked 2 across from each other (Simon is under 100 cm so he doesn't need a seat). As Martin grabbed to stroller, I heard an "Oh no." I figure that something on the stroller had broken. But when he walked in to our seats, he looked at me and said those dreaded two words,"My back."

It is hard to describe how I felt at that moment. Surprised? No, not really. You see, earlier this summer we took a vacation to Minnesota, and his back went out. Before that, we had a long weekend in France without Simon, and his back or neck went out. Since moving to Germany, Martin has struggled to make exercise a part of his routine (I'm one to talk!), and he has had quite a few back episodes in the last few years. So I hate to be the nagging wife that says, "I told you so." So I won't...

So now I was officially on Simon duty, diarrhea and all, I was getting no help. Simon was clearly not feeling well, so he was just snuggled up to me the whole time, not too difficult. Eventually they came around to turn our seats into beds, and Simon curled up in my bunk and fell asleep. Not a bad start.

Around midnight I was lying in the bunk with Simon trying to fall asleep, when he started coughing and then threw up on the bed. The whole car was asleep and I was trying to wake up Martin while holding a plastic bag (a leaky plastic bag we later found out) in front of Simon. Martin was able to help out and get us some new sheets, and fish out some more plastic bags (double bagged this time).

The night continued like that for Simon and I. He would start coughing a little, I would get the bag, it was our routine. Since hadn't eaten there really wasn't much coming out anyway. I didn't sleep much, and Simon didn't sleep well, but we finally made it to Chiang Mai! And despite a sick child and invalid husband, I still kind of enjoyed the trip. I hope we take another night train in Thailand, but next time with everyone healthy.

The funny thing is that right before Simon fell asleep, I remember thinking about how good it felt to be on that train. We were leaving Bangkok, we were traveling on the cheap. I guess it reminded me of backpacking in the Americas and I was just excited to be doing it as a family this time. I hadn't really considered the whole vomit aspect.

So now we are in Chiang Mai. Martin is looking forward to many massages while I take care of our unwell child. But that's ok, we have the time.
UPDATE: it's Monday evening (we arrived Sunday morning) and Simon is doing much better! Here's a pic of him shoveling his fried rice into his mouth at dinner tonight! Martin has found a great masseuss and is moving around pretty well, considering.


Sunday, November 18, 2012, sweat, smile

We arrived in Bangkok not quite knowing what to expect, but I can't say that our expectations were high. It's a big, polluted, foreign city, and I had read and heard that people pass through more out of necessity than a draw to the city. That said, it is known for fantastic food and some stunning temples. So we set out to explore.


Eating was what Martin and I most looked forward to in Bangkok. We both love Thai food, and no better place to start than Bangkok, known for scrumptious street food, fabulous mall food courts, as well as high end restaurants. As backpackers the latter was not on our agenda.

The first night we arrived late, hungry, and I had a banging headache. We knew that the hotel restaurant would be overpriced, but I was in no shape or mood to explore. The food was fine, but not extraordinary, and I have paid less for better in the US.

The next morning, after yet another late start, the hotels staff directed us to the food court of a nearby mall to get some local grub. We ended up at a different, smaller mall than she had suggested, but we were starving so we checked out the various stalls. There were no other tourists in sight and English menus were limited, which seemed all the better to us. We both enjoyed delicious meals, with Martin going back for seconds. And Simon happily ate off of our plates, apparently a big fan of pad Thai.

It's actually rather embarrassing to recount how much time we spent in malls in Bangkok. But we had read that it's a good place to enjoy the local food. In addition, Jiro, a former colleague of Martin's who lives in Bangkok, suggested we check out the mall food courts for good food. They were cheap, had great variety, and were packed with local Thais as well. (Althogh some were also eating KFC, which Martin of course approved of). Between food courts and local restaurants, we quickly discovered that our mediocre first meal at the hotel restaurant was around 10 times what we could eat for out in the city.

The most impressive food court that we encountered was on the top floor of the Terminal 21 mall. It is comprised of primarily China-town food vendors that were hand selected by the mall's owner. They are each given space rent free, in return they have to keep their prices the same as on the street of China-town. As a result, it's dirt cheap and authentic food. Meals were between 30-60 baht ($1-2). Not bad.

One of the best meals we had, however, was not on the streets or at a restaurant, but at Jiro's house, prepared by his mother-in-law. It was a traditional Chinese chicken dish (hainan chicken) served with rice and a spicy ginger sauce. Not surprising that the best food is always homemade.

(Also, not sure if I should admit this, but I have had 2 chocolate dipped cones from DQ since arriving. In my defense, we don't have DQ in Germany.)


It's hot here. But from what I understand, it's actually not nearly as hot as it gets, but for us pasty Nordic folks, it's hot. Especially when you are lugging around a 2 year old, a stroller, and a backpack full of diapers. But luckily the heat did not prevent us from exploring some of the great sights of the city (including air conditioned malls as previously mentioned).

For both of us, this is our first trip to SE Asia. I have traveled a bit in Central and South America, having seen my fair share of Inca and Aztec ruins. But they are nothing like the Buddhist temples here in Bangkok. Intricate, ornate, brightly colored and covered with gold, they are simply stunning. The Grand Palace was mobbed with people, but it's still worth the visit. I think I enjoyed nearby Wat Pho more, because it was much less crowded it simply made for a more enjoyable experience.

At the Grand Palace


Thai people are friendly! They smile at you and they are sooooo friendly to us (I think because we have Simon.) when maneuvering the stroller through crowded sidewalks, people move out of the way with a smile on their face. We definitely know we are not in Germany anymore!

It's quite fun to watch people react to Simon. I love that it's not just women and young girls, but men and young boys also really smile and wave and talk to him. And take pictures. Oh my, the pictures! And it's not just the Thai, but Chinese, Japanese, and Indian tourists as well. They come over and ask to take pictures with him. The most entertaining was definitely Friday when we ran into the Mr. International 2012 competitors. They think he is a future Mr. International!

Now we are off to Chiang Mai, and very happy about it. We have had fun in Bangkok, but we're ready to check out the countryside and maybe ride some elephants!